Interview: Brian Reitzell – the acclaimed soundtrack artiste talks to us about his score for Hannibal
Goliath of the contemporary soundtrack world Brian Reitzell, whose work includes scoring Lost in Translation, Boss and Watch Dogs amongst others, is also the genius behind the soundtrack for the critically well-received NBC thriller Hannibal. Until recently, when Bristol’s Invada Records stepped in, the music was only been available as digital downloads but it Invada recently announced that they were going to release the work as a sumptuous 4 x double LP boxset. As good a time as any, then, for us to sit down with Mr. Reitzell and have a chat about his work. Colin McCracken does the honours.
Louder Than War: Your transition from working as a band member to becoming a music supervisor and score artist seems to have begun with a collaboration with Sofia Coppola. Can you tell me a little about how you came to be working together and how that relationship has developed over time?
Brian Reitzell: I met Sofia when I first moved down to LA from San Francisco in 1991. I came to LA to play drums with the band Redd Kross and we had mutual friends. When Sofia engaged in her first feature film “The Virgin Suicides” she asked me to help her find 70s music — the film takes places around 1974 and there were many scenes where music was playing on a turntable or on the radio (diegetic music). I had recently quit Redd Kross so the timing was perfect for me and I got really into it. Spending entire days in record stores doing my research. There wasn’t any Google or iTunes back then. Sofia and I have compatible taste in music so the process was very natural. Neither of us had any idea what a music supervisor was supposed to do. I learned all about clearing music on that film. Licensing tracks from bands like E.L.O. and the Bee Gees with very little money is a huge challenge especially taking into consideration Sofia was a first time director and the film had no distribution. We found our own way of doing things and it worked. Through another mutual friend, director Mike Mills, I met the guys in Air who Sofia had asked to score the film. Mike was directing a music video for the band and suggested we all meet since we were all working on Sofia’s film. The day I met them we talked for hours and they asked me to go on tour as their drummer for the “Moon Safari” tour. I did the tour and then went into their studio in Versailles and recorded the score with them. The process worked well. Having the music supervisor involved in the scoring made for some interesting sonic connections. I think it was helpful for Sofia too. I could be her mouthpiece in the studio and help her get what she needed. For the next film “Lost In Translation” we took the process we developed for “Suicides” and refined it a bit. Sofia gave me a larger role. Most of the music in that film came from two mix CD’s I gave her while she was writing the script. I went into the studio with Kevin Shields and did a few tracks with him and then filled in the holes back in LA recording a few cues, the karaoke tracks, ring tones, etc… anything Sofia needed musically I would help her with. We have continued that process to this day with “Marie Antoinette” and “Bling Ring”.
How has your personal input to the aural template of Coppola’s films altered throughout the last fifteen years? As your style progresses and evolves, do you find that your involvement has taken on new forms?
Each film is a bit different, but for the most part we approach them the same. “Marie Antoinette” doesn’t have a score. I recorded some piano cues with Dustin O’Halloran and some period music with a French ensemble and few other things,t we but it’s mostly source music from the mixes I gave her while she was writing, scouting and shooting. With “Bling Ring” it was our first foray into contemporary Pop music which was fun for us. I have become increasingly interested in atmospherics and sound design. “Bling Ring” has about 40 minutes of score / atmospheres which wasn’t what we intended, it just worked out that way. I gave Sofia a bunch of tonal elements to work with just as I would give her songs and it all just stuck.
When you became involved with the film Thumbsucker, was this before or after Elliot Smith’s passing? How was the project explained to you and what was your specific role within the construction of the album?
I was hired to be the music supervisor on that film. Mike Mill’s wanted me to help him much in the way I had worked with Sofia. Mike had wanted Elliot to do some covers for the film so I got in touch with Elliot and brought him on board. We showed him an early cut of the film which he loved so he agreed to try. Elliot lived near me and we have some mutual friends so I had seen him around a bit, but we never really talked much until the film. He identified with the film on a number of levels. In the car on the way back from that first screening he played me a few tracks he was working on that he thought we should consider for the film. “Let’s Get Lost” was something he played that day which is in the film. Elliot’s cover of Cat Stevens “Trouble” was a song that Mike had chosen. Elliot told me he didn’t like Cat Steven’s original version but he liked the song. He did a beautiful albeit chilling cover for the film especially in light of what was to come. “Trouble” was the last song he recorded. He totally made it his own. He had been working up the next cover which was to be John Lennon’s “Isolation” when he passed away. I loved Elliot. He was such a sweet, sensitive, wonderful guy. We became fast friends. He played me loads of amazing music he was working on and it seemed he was doing really well. That was really hard. Mike and I just had to stop working on the film for a while. During the hiatus Mike went to see the Polyphonic Spree and thought that big uplifting sound would work well to finish the score. I never fully agreed, but it’s Mike’s baby and I trust and respect him totally. I got in touch with Tim De Laughter who is the main writer in the Spree and he did the score. I helped him along as best I could but honestly the film became something quite different after Elliot had died and my heart wasn’t in it in the same way. I think we needed to be cradled with sunshine. Tim did a fantastic job but it’s a very different vibe from where it would have gone had Elliot and I finished as we set out. I had nothing to do with the actual album except to help secure the rights for Elliot’s music which was very tricky given the circumstances. Thankfully, his family were very supportive and everything worked out. I know Elliot would be proud of the way his music was included in the film.
For 30 Days of Night, which was a fantastic adaptation of the Niles / Templesmith graphic novel, you created a marvellously dark, but very atypical score for a genre film. Talk me through a little of the process which was involved for this one please. Was this also your first time working with David Slade?
Yes, it was my first time working with David. It was also my first time scoring an entire film myself. There are no licensed tracks in the film. I had just finished renovating a new studio and some of the design was based on a process I was developing for that film. The film was mostly being ‘temped’ with stuff by Penderecki. Ligeti, etc… the usual big dissonant orchestral canon which I love but wasn’t really possible given my resources plus I also really wanted to create my own original sound for it. I wanted to make something new, something even scarier and darker than anything else I had heard. I was thinking about underground Japanese noise music and German industrial sounds as well as Ligeti and Penderecki and so on. It was a big budget Hollywood film and needed to sound as rich and big as a 100 piece orchestral recording. I brought in Abel Korzeniowski who had studied with Penderecki to play cello along with a few other musicians who continue to work with me. Dave Palmer on keyboards and Tim Young on guitar. I wanted the music to be psychological to seep into the audience. I didn’t want to play the typical voicings that people are familiar with because I didn’t find that to be as scary as hearing something that was new and unfamiliar. There can be so much baggage in hearing something and your brain registers it as a guitar or a violin or whatever. I wanted more of a “what the f__k is that” score because it just made it more horrifying to me. Much of the time in the studio is spent creating those sounds. I love to experiment every day. That score uses mostly rather traditional instruments but played and tuned and processed in unlikely ways. There is also a fair amount of things I got from scrap yards, Home Depot and custom percussion instruments. Bronze is always king if you want to split someone’s head open with sound. I spend a great deal of time setting up certain sounds and then have musicians come in and improvise after a bit of direction. I don’t like to let them see the scene until we are recording so I can get their shock and gut response to what is happening on screen. I spend most of the time editing the different performances to get what I’m looking for.
Did your experiences with Slade lead to becoming a part of the process for Hannibal?
Yes, “Hannibal” was temped with my score for “30 Days Of Night” which everybody liked so I had to do it. I didn’t want to do it originally because it was a network TV show which I thought would be stifling but I love David and after speaking to Bryan Fuller and knowing they had Mads for the Hannibal Lecter role, I was in.
Hannibal is also a unique and special form of soundtrack. Were you given any kind of brief for it, or was it a situation in which you were given carte blanche to develop something befitting?
I honestly don’t think many of the producers or studio people involved really understand what I’m doing but it works so they leave us alone and trust that we will deliver. We went through a few mix engineers because they just couldn’t wrap their head around what we were doing. This is either the easiest or the hardest gig for the sound effects department because David tends to throw all that stuff out the window and just use the music. It’s a delicate balance. Both Bryan Fuller and David Slade have been so supportive as have Gaumont the French company that makes the show. David and I have such good chemistry that I have rarely if ever had to change a cue. Bryan Fuller totally gets it too. We talked a lot about music before I started. I remember being impressed that he understood that Tangerine Dream went down hill once they turned up the guitars and little things like that. We have similar sensibilities. I think all he really told me is that he wanted it to be “psychological”. He would say he wanted to be ‘cocooned’ by the music. I feel very fortunate to have this kind of creative freedom. It’s allowing me to really dig deep and push things a bit. To try to present something unusual and unique for a network TV series. I’m a big fan of the pioneering spirit of someone like Pierre Schaefer. He invented what we call “Music Concrete” back in the 40s. He got his money for those early experiments from a French TV studio which I find very inspiring.
With elements of minimalism, experimentation and what some may deem ‘traditional;’ scoring, the Hannibal soundtrack is a journey which is fraught with a multitude of unexpected turns, much like the series itself. You must have created a massive amount of music for the seasons so far; how did the distilling process work so that you could get it down to a length which you could release?
It’s a monster for sure. There is nearly 25 hours of score that was created for the first two seasons. I felt like it was my obligation to the Fannibals to provide them with the best possible musical souvenir for the show. That’s how I always approach it when doing a soundtrack album. It’s not really my record, it’s theirs. We tried doing just one double disc set, one for each season but it wasn’t right. It had to be two double discs which is still a small fraction of the score but let’s face it, it’s odd music for most and I’m sure some people would be happy with a single set of their favorite moments. I don’t do any social media so I asked the producers to send out Tweets to the Fannibals asking what cues they particularly liked to help me in the distillation process. I got pages of stuff back and I think I covered most of it. I spent about three weeks going through everything and decided to do mini suites for each episode and for the suites to work in a chronological order. I threw everything into ProTools and edited the cues down and combined them to make the suites. I had to narrow it down to around three hours of music spread across 4 CDs or 8 LPs. David Slade did the artwork so the whole thing is probably rather unusual for a TV show soundtrack. I come from the world of making records so it all makes sense to me and I’m more than happy to do the work to be sure it’s all done in a manner that I can be proud of.
There are so many moments on the Hannibal records in which the instrumentation and arrangements are almost unrecognizable. Are you utilising a wide range of obscure instruments for the soundtracks?
It’s probably more traditional then you might think especially season 2. I’m really a purist at heart and don’t care much for digital instruments except for samplers and a few odd keyboards. I’m a percussionist first, so there were a large number of percussion instruments and things that might be classified as ‘sound effect instruments’. I collect all kinds of instruments especially when I travel so you will hear things like Chinese gongs and wood blocks mixed with Japanese chimes, koto (which we made out of an acoustic guitar), gamelan instruments, bull roarer, Spanish clave, Moroccan stringed things and weird flutes and such. I do have quite a few one of a kind custom instruments that I have incorporated into the Hannibal scores. I believe that anything that makes an interesting sound is worthy of being recorded. There are things like insects, water, machinery, anatomical, environmental and other organic and inorganic sound sources are used in the score.
What is the recording process like for individual episodes? What kind of a turnaround are you given for each one and do you ever find it challenging to meet such deadlines?
Some episodes allow a bit more time but typically I have 7 – 10 days to write, record and mix the score and one day to deliver it. On the delivery day my engineer does all the technical work while I tear down and set up for the next episode. It’s such a short victory lap ha ha. I like to start over fresh so no two episodes have the same set up. It’s a bit like prep cooking with a new menu for every episode. I don’t read the scripts or get ahead. I like to record myself playing something the very first time I see the episode to capture my guy reaction to the scenes. I then build on that, going from station to station over dubbing myself, building the foundation. I get in around 10 am, do my emails and such and my engineer comes in at eleven. We record and edit and do some mixing for a few hours and then do more recording. A few days a week I bring in the various musicians who play with me for a three hour session. There’s not much time so normally I can only do one session with each musician. I also like to bring in a special instrument for each episode which I will either rent or buy or have made. My engineer and I leave around 7 pm. I go home and spend some time with my family and then go back to the studio and work alone until I can’t make any more good decisions, usually around midnight or 1 am. It’s brutal. After six months of it I’m pretty fried, which is how long it takes to complete a season.
The French and Japanese titles for the tracks on the albums are something which stands out. Can you explain the mythology and reasoning behind them for me please?
The titles of the episodes for season 1 are all named after French food courses and season 2 they are all Japanese food courses. Season 3 will be Italian.
Finally, have you a favourite moment from the show itself that you’d like to share?
Episode 204, “Takiawase” is one of my favourites especially the scene where Chilton shoots Will Graham up with sodium Pentothal and he has all these trippy visions. I’m also quite fond of the scene in 212 when Mason Verger is high on LSD and tripping out as Hannibal is persuading him to cut his own face off and feed it to the dogs. I like the weirdo psychedelic stuff they throw at me. I got to do some Harry Partch style experiments for that one. I even found a place to use a slide whistle in that cue which was a first for me. When I see a scene like that for the first time, I rub my eyes and shake my head and think “what the fuck is that” and how am I going to come up with something to go with it. Really all I’m doing is scoring what they are giving me. It’s their fault the music is as out there as it is. I couldn’t be more delighted.
And more on Hannibal can be found on the NBC website: nbc.com/hannibal.
All words by Colin McCracken. More from Colin can be found at his Louder Than War Author’s Archive.